Monday, March 28, 2011

Simplicity Parenting: Step 1

This is the first of four articles on what I took away from the Waldorf conference on simplicity parenting, featuring Kim John Payne as keynote speaker.

Having known for years that clutter was anti-productive and not the best environment for learning and growing, I thought I had the basic concept pretty much understood and applied. You can walk on all of the floors in our house, the nature table is kept sacred (that means I throw anything on the floor you might dare to set on it) and things are cleaned and dusted.

What Payne had to say about simplifying took it all to a new level, one that I love, having adopted it in the past week. He is the author of a study on children with ADD and ADHD in Waldorf schools. His method: paring down four things, beginning with environment, have turned around the lives of many, many children, without drugs. All children, even those from caring, loving homes with pretty wooden toys, feel overwhelmed by too much stuff, they all share a basic need for stability and strength through order. And as I listened, I felt very drawn toward this down-sized version of my over-filled house. 

In practice, this is what Payne did; he would come into a home for a day-long consultation, bringing with him  his tools of the trade: a bunch of garbage bags. In each instance, including in beautiful Waldorf classrooms, he worked with parents to remove half of the toys and books. He then removed half again of the toys and books. First step completed. An orderly, uncluttered environment, with less toys and books means that children will actually be able and forced to play with what is left. If sticks and acorns are all that is left, that will open up their imagination to create with these. Another Steiner observation that Payne reminded us of: a child, up to the age of 8 or 9, can be told the same story, day after day, for a month. The children will not be bored with it, they will have time to really discover all of the ways in which it can speak to them, but you will develop your own will and patience in reading it to them. (This is where a bit of Elizabeth Zimmerman wisdom comes in. She advised learning to knit with your eyes shut. Her reasoning; so that we are able to read and knit at the same time, especially the same book our kids want to hear over and over... and over.) Back to the reason he mentions this; a bookshelf with a few, well-chosen books on it is worth more than a roomful of them, so overwhelming that a kid will tell you "there's nothing to do/read/etc. in here."

In our house, I began with my own space, so that I was not imposing upon my children what I was not willing to do myself. I cleaned out my closet. I have a walk-in closet that I could no longer walk into. I cleared out seven or eight bags of things I should have given away years ago. Many of them are baby or toddler clothes I had stored on my closet floor, many more are items I have not worn for a long time or should no longer wear, due to size or age.I can now enter an organized, peaceful feeling closet and find both clothes and yarn stash. I think I might move my meditation practice to my closet, just don't tell the kids.

I next approached the school/playroom. I tossed many unused/broken toys and took the rest to the basement storage space. I left the play kitchen, the silks and a box of K'nex the boys had been building with over the weekend. I asked Puck Monday morning whether he wanted to keep the kitchen in the playroom, he said no, he liked the space (he is three), so I put that in the basement too.  How nicely they played all week! A couple of toy cars they found somewhere and the K'nex took up all of their time, along with playing soldiers outside and jumping on the trampoline. I always think that they need options and outlets for creativity, thus having more around will provide them with more opportunities. The outlets are in their heads and hearts, and as for options, well, kids need less of those than we think they do. I did not fare so well with the books, but I was able to take out three bags to be donated to the library. I'll work more on it this week, most likely I will put them in a box somewhere until I can give them away, or I will rotate them. Books are harder for me. Result: we love our playroom uncluttered! It is a peaceful place to be, with room to explore and play and dream.

Next in the environment step is food. The low-down on this step is eating real food, without the added clutter of preservatives and hormones and taste-enhancing ingredients (BHT, BHQ, MSG, etc.) Cultivating in our children a taste for the healthy begins with drinking water and proceeds from there. One ultra-freeing idea that our family has adopted this week is to have a permanent menu. This allows for such greater ease of weekly menu-making and discipline that I can't believe we did not do it before now. What it means: every single Sunday we eat x for lunch and y for dinner, every single Monday: same scenario. What it translates to: if fish is on the menu for Friday night, you know it is coming. If you love fish, you can dream of it all week. If you do not like fish, you know it is coming, rain or shine. Conflict resolution is good for kids, Payne reminds us, and in his words; "they can stress about it for days before and prepare for...hunger." As a colleague of his pointed out; not a lot of kids actually die from hunger in the United States.

The "how to" of our menu: we decided to keep this menu for 2 months, and then switch, as we have plenty of favorite dishes and some of them go with each season.  The next menu will be a summer one of veggies and meat on the grill, gratin portugais, cold soups and big rice, black bean and couscous salads. We will keep it for 3 or 4 months. As many of the dishes that I can make in advance, I am making once a month. This month I was able to make 4 batches of  hamburgers (Monday), Italian sausage soup (Wednesday), and lasagna (Thursday). They are all neat and tidy in my freezer, so on those busy days of the week, there is no excuse for not sticking to the menu.

So tell me if you are inspired to take the simplicity challenge and why, we'll compare results next week. For more inspiration, see Kim John Payne's website:


  1. What a great post! I would love to see some photos of you meditating in your cleaned up closet. I signed up for the Simplicity Starter Kit. I want to do it along with you! I don't know about the meals though - Cooking crazy meals is something my family loves to do together. We'll see!

  2. What a lovely post! Thank you for sharing.

  3. Oh Angela,
    You are speaking to my heart here!! I have been so overwhelmed with junk lately. I purged and purged before we moved. Most of the junk was thrown in the basement. And there it festers in a huge mess. Just today, I helped A clean out her room. All 3 kids' bedrooms are horrible messy - because there is no way for them to clean. Too much junk, no where to put it...I think my biggest problem is that I get mad. My family seems to be one of keepers. We might NEED that someday. I hate hearing that. But instead of quietly working on my own clutter, I rant and rave about everyone else's...BAD!!!
    Your menu intrigues me. Please post more. I want to see how it goes for you! :-) Thanks so much for this post. I am going to get back to de-cluttering.

  4. And so funny that you post on this, because I just got an interlibrary loan book on Thursday. Can you guess??? Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne. :-)

  5. This is so true, but what do you do with all the things your relatives give you for special occasions? I started off with very simple and few toys, and I think many people thought I was crazy. We have gotten so many toys over the years and have almost no storage area that I don't know what to do with it all. I also know that our visitors come and look for "their" toys. I have put quite a bit away and rotate things, but it's still a struggle when a new Christmas comes around. I've had some talks about this with my relatives, but they see this issue from a different light. Have you had any experiences like this?

  6. aaaahhhh, this comes at the best time, to help fortify my resolve!

    I hate coming home! So does my son! he's only 4 and all he wants to do is "go somewhere". anywhere but our house. I think it's because we have too much STUFF!

    I have been wanting to embrace the "year of the purge" mentality since January... purge junk, purge food, purge weight, purge anything that does not serve us! but I have been lazy about getting going with it. Today I've started! I hope to do more!

    What an inspiration. This is hard to do but I am going to do what I can, in stages... purge a little today, come back and purge a little more in a few days.

    Please keep sharing! I love this topic!

  7. I'll work on the photo, MHH, but don't hold your breath. There is no "one way" to make meals, what counts is making things work for your family, and making the food healthy. You do a beautiful job of both.

  8. Thank you for stopping in, Marlis, and your loyal reading, I would miss you greatly if you were not reading and leaving insightful (or irreverent) comments!

  9. Hi Michelle,

    Thanks for writing! You have the most inspiring posts these days as well. My grocery bill last week was $264, plus $50 at the farmer's market. I really need to study how you do it.

    I am a keeper too. This is balanced by my "just get rid of it" husband. It is heart-wrenching and liberating at the same time. Now that we are both on board, I can say that it feels so nice to see empty space again. It is just stuff, no, I take that back, it is stuff clogging up your life, so it is actually toxic stuff.

    Keep tossing, bagging and driving to Good Will, Salvation Army or your nearest women's shelter! World Relief will send someone to pick up the big things, they go right to a refuge family's home.
    I love knowing that the bike I had been saving (for what?) will be used for someone to get to school or work the next day.

  10. Hi Eva,

    Yes! I will tell you two things; first, Kim Payne says that grandparents don't really remember what they bought for the kids, we just worry that they do.

    Second; you can always pretend that you have a huge storage space tucked away somewhere and tell anyone who asks about THEIR toy; "we have sooo many great toys, really wonderful toys, but soooo many, that I rotate them in and out of circulation." This many prompt them to ask what you would like or need next time there is a gift-giving occasion. (And you will be ready with: how thoughtful of you, in fact, Jonathon would really like Indonesian ballet lessons, please contribute whatever you would like toward them."

  11. Michele,

    Thank you for sharing your story! It sounds familiar, no one wants to play in our "play" room when it has already been trashed either. But clear the floor and they are all in there, turning cartwheels and (don't look, Mom) jumping off the sofa into the free and clear empty space I have created.

    Keep throwing it out!

  12. Hello Angela:) Thank you for sharing your inspiration. We are reading the Five Pillars of Life by Dr. Symeon Rodger...recommended by Father Peter.
    The very first step...declutter and organize:) This comes before any of the great "spiritual" work. Most importantly, shun the notion of perfection and realize chaos will forever exist to some extent but can be contained with organizational systems. For instance, dirty laundry will always arise, but the family can agree to put it in a cute hamper until laundry time:) Looking forward to your upcoming posts! Love to you all! Allison

  13. Well, I think he is wrong. My parents do remember and my in-laws do too! And I can't pretend we have a huge storage area somewhere because everybody knows and can see that we don't have one (no basement, no attic, no spare bedroom or closet): ). I have gotten rid of things, but there is so much coming that it's hard to keep up. Don't get me wrong, in comparison to most American households we don't have very many toys, but I think there are too many.
    By the way, we got some ballet DVDs last Christmas, not one, though, but three! (None of them is Indonesian, though, maybe I should suggest that :-)!

  14. Great post Angela! These are all things we have been working on for years and they do make such a huge difference. I think the things you mention are also hallmarks of well running large families. We can't do all we need to if we are constantly worrying about the clutter or the house being kept up. Making yourself a plan, even if it is slow in coming together is the best thing any of us can do for our family. It is part of being that Beacon that I always talk about - it helps everyone emotionally and physically. More than once, I have had another Waldorf parent visit my home and they are amazed that I don't have MORE... more toys, more books, more... I have been at this a long time, most imagine I would have rooms of wooden toys and wonderful books, but that goes so far to the opposite end of Steiner's thoughts on materialism... just because we can have more, doesn't mean we should. We put our money into streamlining our home, making it more and more comfortable, loving our space and also vacationing with the children.

    Again, GREAT post! Blessings to you.

    Melisa Nielsen

  15. Lovely words of wisdom, Allison, thank you! I love the comment about chaos always being there to some degree. What I am working on is having less stuff that can cause chaos in the first place. At the end of a busy week, I still see a slightly crazy playroom, more must go.

    Kim John Payne found himself in the the position of having many families sent to him by other therapists before beginning other types of treatment, because they found that by going through a simplifying regime first, the therapy and help "stuck" when it followed decluttering and detoxing. I can clearly see how it would be the same for spiritual work too.

  16. OK, Eva,

    Being far enough away from my own in-laws that they no longer buy toys for the kids and having parents happy to get whatever I suggest, I am ready to concede your point. My in-laws were highly offended by any suggestion I might timidly offer in the way of toys, for them, the pleasure was in choosing a gift for a child they love, and direction was not a fun thing to take.

    It is important to find the words to honor that without being offensive, the human being is more important than the thing in any case. I think meditating on the giver and what prompts them to give might be a first step. Then pray they develop a sudden desire to ask you what your children would like (mine did, miraculously one day!) I will think more about this, and how to get rid of it all without hurting feelings. It is a dilemma. Please let me know your thoughts as well. Anyone else?

  17. Hello Melisa,

    Thanks for chiming in, you are a wonderful example of living what you encourage others to practice.

    There is a difference in keeping things down to a minimum and getting flooded by the avalanche of stuff waiting at your nearest dollar joint to invade your home. When it is not there, it does not need to be tidied up.

    The desire for a harmonious home environment is a strong one, the will needs to follow, and boy, would I rather read or knit. However, I sit down to something that becomes fully relaxing when the house has been tidied first. Not that that always stops me, but pretty soon it will not take as much time to go from crazy to tidy.

    Your Beacon program is an insight-provoking and inspiring resource for remaining strong for your family. How's that belly, by the way?



  18. My strategy now is to foster a sense of thankfulness in my children, no matter what the gift. I try to abstain from negative comments most of the time. When the children were smaller and would not know if the toy stayed or not, I removed it when they did not notice it. Now if we receive something inappropriate we talk about it and put it away together. My children have received many duplicate toys, i.e. toys that are similar (three different doll house families, etc.). I put two of them in a box in one of our overflowing closets and only get them out if they ask for them. We are running out of space though and eventually have to say good bye to some of the presents. I used to show my relatives catalogs we like, but I think that was not a good idea. We also used to suggest toys, but they did not like that either. They know that I'm not a big fan of plastic toys and they are trying to honor that now. So we have a workable solution although it's not perfect.


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